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The ‘Thinking Person’s’ Horror and Suspense Fiction: Meet Greg F. Gifune

New York Times best-selling author Christopher Rice called him "the best writer of horror and thrillers at work today." Legendary author Ed Gorman said he was "among the finest dark suspense writers of our time." Greg F. Gifune has certainly earned an admirable reputation in the world of horror and suspense fiction.

 

Greg's novels, novellas, and short stories have been published all over the world and translated into several languages; received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, and others; is consistently praised by readers and critics alike, and has garnered attention from Hollywood. His novels, among many others, include Savages, Babylon Terminal, God Machine, Midnight Solitaire, Midnight Gods, and Drago Descending.

 

Greg's novel The Bleeding Season, originally published in 2003, has been hailed as a classic in the horror genre and is considered by many readers to be one of the best horror/thriller novels of our times.

 

  

Greg, let's start with The Bleeding Season, probably your first novel to thrust you into the limelight. Delirium Books published the first edition. I believe a new edition was recently reissued by Journalstone. What has been your experience working with various publishers throughout your career?

 

Yes, The Bleeding Season put me on the map, and it's continued to be in print and sell all over the world for years now. It's considered a cult classic, and many, including Famous Monsters of Filmland, listed it as one of the great horror novels alongside King's IT and McCammon's Boy's Life, so I'm very proud of it. It's done very well in Russia and Germany, so it has a broad fan base and a readership that is rather rabid in supporting the book.

 

The new edition is a fifteen-year anniversary edition that one of my publishers, Journalstone, released in 2018 and features a new introduction from Ronald Malfi (Bone White) and a new afterword from Eric Shapiro (Red Dennis). I'm happy to be with Journalstone. They have much of my backlist of novels and I'm doing new projects with them as well, including a new novella I wrote with Sandy DeLuca called Blue Hell that'll be out in March and available everywhere.

 

I'm fortunate in that I work with many great publishers, and my experience over the years has been incredibly good. I've had a few bad situations, of course, but everyone that's been in the business more than ten or fifteen minutes has too. Overall, I think I've had good relationships with almost all the publishers I've worked with in what's been a twenty-year career so far. Generally, it's been positive.

 

 

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And what advice would you offer authors who want to develop strong relationships with publishers?

 

I'd say be patient. Patience has never particularly been one of my strong suits, but it's something I've learned to develop in dealing with publishers. You must be open-minded, particularly when you're starting out. If you're working with professionals, people who know what they're doing—and odds are, if they're in those positions and you're just starting, they know more than you do—go in with an open mind and listen to what they tell you. A good editor is invaluable. I don't care what level of experience you have, an excellent editor only helps and makes the work, and by extension you, better.

 

I've been on both sides of that desk. I've worked for publishers as an editor, running lines and in acquisitions. I've worked in that capacity with seasoned veterans and newcomers, and the best experiences are always those that work as a partnership. A good editor doesn't write the novel or try to tell you how to write it. He or she simply guides you, keeps you focused and on track, and helps bring out the best in your work.

 

You must also realize there's nothing magical about publishers. They have good days and bad days like anyone else. As long as a publisher is honest, that's the key. If a publisher tells you something, it should happen. If it can't happen or doesn't, they should be upfront about why, and you go from there. Communications is big, and that (or should) go both ways because, to develop strong relationships with publishers, it's a two-way street. There must be mutual respect, and the publisher must want to work with their authors as much as authors want that with them. So, be a writer they want to work with again, who cares about what you and they are doing, and who wants to team with the publisher to make the book as good and as successful as it can be.

 

Do you believe there is true evil in the world, an underlying darkness that is beyond our control, the engine that drives the world? The Bleeding Season certainly suggests that.

 

 

The short answer is yes. 'Believe' is probably the wrong word because I think belief requires faith, in a sense, and suggests it's open to debate. For me, it's not. Evil is one engine driving the world. On the other hand, I think good drives it as well. It's usually a matter of which stream you want to swim in.

 

The Bleeding Season explores and suggests that, and I think there's a real-world parallel. It's a very personal novel. While it's fiction, there's also a good deal of truth in it, and the essence of what I explore in that novel is real. There's a lot of truth in terms of human behavior and the evil in the world. Much of it ties to a past of mine I don't talk about much, where my life went in a different direction than it is now. There's a deep truth to that novel and I think that's one reason it resonates with so many readers, has for so many years, and continues to.

 

The Bleeding Season is a harrowing, cerebral novel heavy on psychology—a thinking person's horror novel. Savages, on the other hand, reminded me of a '70s B movie—gruesome and fun. They're very different books with distinct styles. It was as if different authors wrote them. When you begin a novel, do you intentionally explore new writing styles, or does it just come down to the subject matter?

 

I don't necessarily explore different styles (in a technical sense), as my style remains more or less the same from one work to another. But Savages is a departure from my other novels. I'm glad it reminded you of 70s B movies because that's what I was going for. The whole idea behind Savages was to write a salute to those great 70s and 80s B drive-in movies that I've always loved and were great fun. That was my tip of the hat to that sort of thing. I stepped outside of what I normally do, and I think you're right that if you read Savages and then any number of other novels I've written, you'll see a difference.

 

My other work, as you said, is more cerebral and psychological. Then there are my crime novels, and most of them are something else again. But in terms of style, it pretty much stays the same. I just alter things for what I'm trying to accomplish or get across. And that's really what Savages was about, so it had to be written like a pulp exploitation novel or it wouldn't have worked.

 

 

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A Powerful First Line is Essential!

Many editors will tell you that, when plowing through a slush pile of freelance submissions, they often never get past the first sentence of a story, much less the first paragraph. Writers may think this unfair, but an editor's instinct about a story is usually dead on -- if the first few lines of a story don't snare your attention, you're not likely to read further.

 

Compelling first lines are critical.

 

Consider the following examples of first lines from best-selling authors.

 

  • Everything, Sam Peebles decided later, was the fault of the god-damned acrobat. If the acrobat hadn't gotten drunk at exactly the wrong time, Sam never would have ended up in such trouble. ("The Library Policeman" by Stephen King)
     
  • Red Tongue Jurgis (we called him that because he ate red-hots all the time) stood under my window one cold October morning and yelled at the metal weathercock on top of our house. ("The Last Circus" by Ray Bradbury)
     
  • It was hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children. ("Gone South" by Robert McCammon)
     
  • On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. ("The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" by Harlan Ellison)
     
  • Barberio felt fine, despite the bullet. ("Son of Celluloid" by Clive Barker)

 

Well-written first lines engage the inquisitive human brain, pulling us into a story by appealing to our natural curiosity, appealing to our emotions, or ideally both. And very often brevity enhances those appeals. (Barker's six-word sentence, for example, begs many questions that urge you to read more.) First lines should raise questions in our minds, with the promise that the answers will be divulged if we continue reading the story. First lines should jumpstart the reader's imagination. The excellent writer understands the psychology of the reader and uses this knowledge to manipulate, entertain, and even educate the reader -- right out of the gate.

 

Consider the first sentence from Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs." Ellison was inspired to write this short story after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964; Genovese was stabbed repeatedly near her apartment in New York City, and the murder was witnessed by 38 of her neighbors who did not interfere with the killer, despite the woman's screams for help. Ellison starts the story with mention of a mundane chore (painting louvered window shutters), then counterpoints this with a knifing in Beth's courtyard. Subtle psychology going on here. In one sentence, Ellison has us hooked. What did Beth do? What happened next? Who was the slain woman? The murderer? How can you not read more?

 

If you are a fiction writer, spend a good deal of time tailoring the first sentence or two of your stories. Consider the questions you want in your reader's mind as the story begins, then write a lead that plants those questions -- and drive them to read more.

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Stand-Up and Comics and Horror, Oh My: Meet Jasper Bark

Jasper Bark has a problem staying out of trouble. Much to our entertainment, he's embraced this lifelong ambition to find trouble and use it as the content for his writing. His broad experience has given us incredible horror stories, comics, and even a children's "pop-up" book of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions. There's not much the man can't do, creatively speaking. Plus, he has a distinct, if somewhat warped, sense of humor. Interviewing him proved to be an adventure.

 

 

Let's start by dispelling a rumor. Do you really write in the nude?

 

Only when I'm trying to summon a Batrachian Daemon to spitball story ideas. But that has its drawbacks because those daemons are pretty possessive when it comes to their ideas, and there's nothing worse than being taken to court for plagiarism in a hell dimension. I mean, jeez, their legal system, talk about Kafkaesque.

 

Plus, as I'm constantly explaining to my wife, and the Mailman, technically it's not nudity if I'm dripping in Yak's blood.

 

You once performed (and maybe you still do) stand-up poetry. How did that happen? And did stand-up comedy have anything to do with it?

Did comedy have anything to do with it? I guess that would depend on how drunk my audiences were.

 

I have worked as both a stand-up and a performance poet over the years. Stand-up gigs pay much better than poetry gigs. At one point I combined the two, so I could cover twice the number of venues with the same set. Hence stand-up poetry.

 

I began stand-up when I was 15 years old. There weren't any comedy clubs in the North of England where I lived, which was very blue-collar. In those days, the comedy clubs were all down in the south of the UK, which was much richer. So, I played Working Men's Clubs, which had cheap beer and blue comedians. I used to skip school and hitchhike to the venues. Technically I was way too young to be in any of those places, but they let me in for some reason. I think it was because I looked about 12, had a potty mouth, and the customers found it hilarious.

 

I left school at 16, which you could do in the UK back in the '80s, and, having no qualifications and no other trade, I led a hand-to-mouth/gig-to-gig existence as a stand-up and actor throughout my late teens and twenties, eventually making quite a few 'blink and you'll miss me' appearances on TV. It was the closest I could get to running away to join the circus.

 

Some of your fiction runs to erotic horror, with a side of dark humor. Is this an intentional recipe (erotic fiction + horror with a dash of humor) or one that just comes naturally to you?I think it's a little of both. Comedy, horror, and erotica are closely connected in a number of ways. First, they tend to be dismissed, or looked down on, by mainstream literature, so they're interesting places to do something subversive. Second, they're genres that want a specific reaction from their audience. At a basic level, they all involve building tension and then releasing it. For comedy the release is a laugh, for horror it's a scream and with erotica it's … y'know … I've always viewed horror as a particularly dark form of humor. It's a jet-black school of comedy where the laugh freezes in the throat and becomes a scream. Then again, most comedy involves people in awful and embarrassing situations too. We laugh as a way of distancing ourselves from their predicament because, if we didn't, we might shudder instead.

 

Horror is also an extremely stimulating and exciting genre, it gets the heart racing in the same way that a piece of really good erotica might. Think how much your heart races watching a slasher movie, and how much it races the first time you take someone to bed. There's always been a subconscious link between Thanatos (the death drive) and Eros. That's why, with the right person, horror films are surprisingly good date movies.

 

I love the visceral nature of all three genres. I love the fact that they provoke a reaction in the audience. I don't just want to make the reader think. I want you to laugh out loud in some passages. I want you to put the book down and jump on your lover, in others, and occasionally I want to make you lose your lunch. So that's why I tend to mix them up. I don't just want you to put down one of my books and say: "hmm, well, that was nice."

 

Your novel The Final Cut is about two filmmakers who are forced to watch a snuff film. The plot is a mix of crime, horror, and urban fantasy. I'm curious. How did you research this one?

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For Action-Oriented Female Characters, You Can't Beat DV Berkom

DV Berkom loves strong, intelligent, smart-ass, and kick-ass female characters. So, it's not surprising that the USA Today best-selling author of two action-packed thriller series features impressive female leads: Kate Jones and Leine Basso. Her drive to create such women stems from a lifelong addiction to reading spy novels, mysteries, and thrillers— and longing to find the female equivalent within those pages.


After a lifetime of moving to places people typically like to visit on vacation, she now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and several imaginary characters who like to tell her what to do. Her most recent books include Dakota Burn, Absolution, Dark Return, The Last Deception, Vigilante Dead, A Killing Truth, and Cargo. She's currently working on her next thriller.

DV was happy to entertain some questions from us. If you enjoy reading (and perhaps writing) thrillers, you just might find her experiences and advice enlightening.

 

Thanks for playing along with us! Let's start with the obvious questions. What do you find most appealing about writing series? Do you think series are easier to write and market than stand-alone novels?

 

Other than short stories, I've only ever written a series—I really love them. The form gives me the ability to explore the main character much more in-depth than a stand-alone novel. Plus, I get to concentrate on the story, the setting, and the secondary characters since I'm familiar with the MC and don't have to build her from scratch. But easy to write? I'd have to say writing, in general, is about as easy as balancing on top of a unicycle in the middle of the I-5 during a Seattle rush hour, while sipping a cocktail and having a conversation with my editor.

 

As for marketing, I think having a series is definitely easier than writing one-offs. There are so many more entry points for a reader and, if they love a character, many will burn through the entire series, which helps tremendously.

 

When creating a series character like Leine Basso or Kate Jones, is the character growth and maturation planned or a natural progression?

 

To be completely honest, I started both series without a plan of any sort. At that point in my writing career, I was a pantser (seat of your pants writer). I'd sit down with a sketchy idea of what I wanted to accomplish, and then just have at it. While that was terrific fun, I ended up writing myself into so many corners that I would spend hours revising scenes so they'd work. Yeah, my novels used to take a LOT longer to write back then. Now, I usually work up an outline that I try to refer to when I get stuck. I say try because one of my later Leine Basso thrillers, Dakota Burn, went entirely off the rails because I got caught up in the storyline and completely forgot I'd written one. When I finally came up for air, I read through the said outline and thought, "Huh. Well, that would have worked too."

 

So, to answer your question, character growth for both Kate and Leine was a natural progression in the beginning (re: pantser days), then became a bit more planned as I worked my way through each of the series.

 

What do you think, will Leine and Kate ever cross paths?

 

Lots of readers have asked me that question. I've considered it, just haven't found the right story yet. It would definitely be an interesting encounter. They're so different— Leine is the calm, objective, capable professional, while Kate is an emotional, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kinda gal. But both are gutsy, independent women, so there is that.

 

Bourne or Bond?

 

Tough choice. I grew up reading Bond, and never miss a 007 movie, but I can say the same for Bourne. If I absolutely have to choose and we're talking movies, I'd say Bourne. The action scenes are soooo good (although I really like Daniel Craig as Bond). The books are a toss-up. I'd be happy with either.

 

Let's talk about Leine for a minute. She's a former government assassin. What research was required to develop her character?

 

If I told you, I'd have to kill you. Seriously, since I'm not exactly an international assassin, I had a lot of help. I'm fortunate to know several folks I can turn to for information who have been in similar situations as my character. First and foremost, I have a great relationship with a former Special Forces sniper. We met through a friend's Zoomba class if you can believe it. He made me meet him there (I'd never Zoomba'd in my life) and make a total ass of myself before he'd talk to me. It was great fun and soooo worth it J I'm also good friends with several law enforcement folks, and some people who possibly-might-have-been-okay-yes-they-were on the other side of that line. Then, once I've nailed down the human side of it, I dig deep and research as much as I can. I try to get to every place I write about, but if that isn't possible, I have friends all over the world I can rely on to help with logistics and setting.

 

I love to travel and have been to all kinds of places. So I can draw on those experiences, as well. I've also practiced with several different weapons throughout the years, so I have a familiarity with firearms.

 

As for her inner demons, we all have those to some degree. I'm great at playing what if and imagining how a character would feel if such and such happened (some call it empathetic, I say neurotic), but I also have a ton of experiences to draw from. One of the many perks of growing older…

 

Leine is something of a badass, no-holds-barred woman, with a bit of satire and dark humor mixed in. How much fun is she to write?

 

Way too much fun. My whole reason for creating Leine was to show that a woman can be a badass, but also have a human side. As one reader put it, she's effed up from her past but tries to work through that as best as she can—kind of like all of us.

 

Dark humor is second nature to me, so it had to bleed through into my books. Serial Date, the first novel I wrote with Leine Basso as the lead character, was intended to be a stand-alone thriller. I needed a strong female that could go toe-to-toe with a cannibal/serial killer. A former government assassin seemed the way to go. Both kill, but for different reasons. Are they really so different? I try to answer that question in the novel. The story itself came from a twisted dream I had, and I just let loose on the characters. The satire in the book (which is pretty much nonexistent in the later novels) was my response to the plethora of serial killer thrillers and reality shows on television at the time. Why not write about a reality show where ex-cons pose as serial killers and women vie for the opportunity to hook up with them? We're not that far from those kinds of "reality" based programs right now.

 

How much of Leine Basso is DV Berkom?

 

Good question. There's definitely some element of me in all my books— I don't think a writer can ever really erase that, and I don't think they should. It's what makes one book different from the others. That being said, Leine's tougher, more attractive, and a hell of a lot better shot than I am.

 

What is your most vexing problem when writing?

 

You'd think after 15+ novels, things would get easier. If anything, it's harder. I tend to jump into a book with great enthusiasm, then about 15k words in I wonder what the hell I was thinking. 20k to 50k I figure it'll be my last book, since I obviously don't know what I'm doing. 55k in and I'm finding it hard to dress— jammies and T-shirts all the way. At 60k+ personal hygiene takes a backseat, as does anything remotely resembling housecleaning. And then it's all unicorns and rainbows because I finished the book and I can start another one. Much champagne is had and life is wonderful. It's a wonder my long-suffering partner, Mark, doesn't just live at the nearest bar.

 

If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

 

Work in finance? Seriously, I probably wouldn't change much. Every writer has to go through their own trajectory. Mine has been all kinds of fun, but also filled with challenges, which is the whole point, I think. I tend to remember the lesson more if it was difficult. Sad, but true.

 

Columbo or McGyver?

 

McGyver, definitely. Action, action, action.

 

You're planning a backyard barbecue and you can invite three special guests— authors or fictional characters, contemporary or from the past. Who do you invite? And what conversation would you hope to initiate?

 

Papa Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Miles Davis. Music, writing, and sarcasm— what more could a gal want? Of course, I'd ask them all to bring their friends. And, if I could have one more guest, I'd absolutely invite Amelia Earhart and ask her what happened when she and Fred Noonan disappeared.

 

Any new authors that have snared your interest?

 

I'm always on the lookout for new authors. Lately, I've been reading Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X series (yeah, I know— I'm late to the party), but I also enjoy Tim Tigner, Carmen Amato, Andrew Warren, Kristi Belcamino, Mark Dawson, and scads of others that would take up way too much space to list here.

 

Who is your favorite superhero? And why?

 

Every woman I've ever met. From my mother and sister to friends and acquaintances to people I've only read about, women have proven to be resilient, fearless, and amazing. I am in awe of all of them.

 

Can you tell us about your current project?

 

I just published Leine Basso #10, Shadow of the Jaguar. This time, Leine's in South America in the Amazon, searching for a member of an expedition on the trail of a kind of El Dorado— a city of gold. I wanted to write more of an action-adventure similar to Cargo (Leine Basso #5), and the whole searching for a lost city thing really intrigued me. The entire time I was writing the book, though, I kept berating myself for attempting such a clichéd plotline (especially since so many other authors have already done it so well), so I worked hard to make the idea fresh rather than a rehash of the genre. From what early readers have said, I succeeded.

 

Thanks, DV, for a great interview. It was fun!

For more information, visit her website at www.dvberkom.com. To be the first to hear about new releases and subscriber-only offers, go to bit.ly/DVB_RL

 

(A version of this interview was published in the 2020 Spring issue of Suspense Magazine.)

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